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It's a bit of a stretch to call it the "Group of Death," but the Canadian women's team's first-round group at this summer's Tokyo Olympics poses a stiff challenge.
FIFA conducted the draw for the women's soccer tournament on Wednesday in Zurich, placing Canada in Group E alongside Japan, Chile and Great Britain. Canada will open play against the hosts on July 21, and then face the South Americans on July 24, with both matches in Sapporo The Reds close out the group stage vs. Great Britain on July 27 in Kashima.
Group F is made up of China, Brazil, the Netherlands and Zambia. Group G consists of the United States, Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. The top two nations in each group — as well as the two best third-place sides — advance to the quarter-finals.
Clare Rustad, who scored three goals in 45 appearances for Canada between 2000 and 2008, called Canada's group "very evenly matched, with the exception of Chile."
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"It's a little bit difficult to know how teams will match up, as the (COVID-19) pandemic has made international matches few and far between. Japan, for example, has not played against top-tier competition in some time, and their World Cup in 2019 was inconsistent. Neither Canada nor England have been at full strength in recent matches due to injury, so I think judging who will win the group is very difficult at this time," Rustad told CBC Sports.
Winning Group E would mean Canada plays the third-place team from either Group F or G in the next round. Canada would face the Group F runner-up if it finished second in Group E. If Canada advances as the third-place team from its group, it would meet the Group G winner. Should Canada win its group and quarter-final, a showdown with the top-ranked U.S. could await in the semifinals.
No easy path to gold-medal match
To put it bluntly, the Americans pose the biggest challenge to Canada's chances of improving on its bronze-medal showings at London 2012 and Rio 2016. The Reds are winless in 37 consecutive games (31 losses) against the U.S., a streak that dates back to March 11, 2001 when the Canadians last beat their neighbours to the south. Overall, the Americans sport a record of 52 wins and seven draws (and only three losses) against the Canadians going back to their first meeting in 1986.
"It is ideal to avoid the U.S. for as long as possible, but nearly impossible to orchestrate because tournaments can result in some surprise results. The U.S. is still a dominant force in women's soccer, even if the gap is narrowing between them and the European teams, and I do not favour Canada's chances against them. But Canada would also likely struggle with the Netherlands and even Sweden, so there is no easy path to a gold medal match," said Rustad, who competed for Canada at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The opening contest is a tough one for coach Bev Priestman's side. Canada is No. 8 in the current FIFA world rankings, ahead of Japan (No. 11). But the host nation isn't a soft touch. Not only will the 2011 World Cup champions enjoy the comforts of home, but they've also had the better of Canada in international play.
The Japanese sport a 7-4-3 all-time record against the Canadians, including a 2-1 victory in the group stage of the 2012 London Games en route to winning the silver medal. Japan earned a 4-0 win on Oct. 6, 2019 in their previous meeting, handing Canada its heaviest defeat in seven years. What's more, the Nadeshiko have a point to prove after failing to qualify for Rio 2016.
"Japan typically plays in a very organized and balanced 4-4-2 formation, and likes to play skillfully and patiently. If Canada can be dynamic and creative in the midfield, they may be able to control the game. The challenge will be to avoid getting stretched out as a midfield-three or getting bypassed quickly," Rustad explained.
"Canada's strength is in its [defence] but if Japan can throw numbers forward in the attack and particularly in transition, they will be dangerous. Canada must come out strong in this first match. Japan will not give them time on the ball, so Canada must be prepared to attack quickly and creatively as it can, be difficult to break down, and be a highly organized and controlled team."
Chile making Olympic debut
Two years after playing in its first Women's World Cup, Chile (ranked No. 37 in the world) will be making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, a sign of their genuine progress as one of the emerging teams from South America. Chile had the misfortune of being in a first-round group at the 2019 World Cup with the U.S. (who would go on to win the tournament) and Sweden (who finished third), and didn't advance to the knockout round. But La Roja Femenina gave a good account of themselves, playing both teams close, and they also earned a win over Thailand.
Chilean captain Christiane Endler, who is a teammate of Canadians Ashley Lawrence and Jordyn at Paris Saint-Germain, is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. What's more, Chile beat Canada 1-0 at the 2013 Torneio Internacional de Futebol Feminino in the only previous meeting between the countries.
Still, Rustad believes Canada should win comfortably against Chile, but the game also has the potential to be "an exercise in frustration" for the Reds.
"Tactically, I can see Canada playing a 3-5-2 formation and pinning them in its end, but I worry about the possibility of a goal against coming on a quick counter by Chile. But with the hopeful roster addition of Vanessa Gilles, I would find it hard to believe that Chile could break through a back-three of Kadeisha Buchanan, Shelina Zadorsky, and Gilles, particularly as this would allow Ashley Lawrence to play in the midfield," Rustad said.
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Canada's fate may rest against Great Britain
Like the opener vs. Japan, the first-round finale against Great Britain is a tough match, and will likely determine where Canada finishes in Group E and its path to the medal podium. Great Britain isn't ranked by FIFA because it's a combined team of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, the majority of its players come from the English national team, which is ranked No. 6, and England's interim manager Hege Riise will also take charge of Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics.
The Canadians bested Great Britain in the quarter-finals of the 2012 London Games, the only previous meeting between the sides. That was Great Britain's first Olympic appearance, as it failed to qualify for Rio 2016.
England defeated host Canada in the quarter-finals of the 2015 Women's World Cup, and reached the semifinals of the 2019 tournament in France.
But the Lionesses have dropped off in the last two years, with just two wins in their last six matches, one of which came against 55th-ranked Northern Ireland. In a pair of friendlies earlier this month, England lost 3-1 to France and 2-0 to Canada. The all-time series between Canada and England is dead even, with seven wins apiece in 14 matches dating back to their first encounter at the 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup in Sweden.
The match against Great Britain will likely be Canada's biggest test of the group stage, and will be won or lost in the midfield, according to Rustad.
"I love this match-up. Great Britain has some technically excellent players that will present a real challenge for Canada. … Great Britain's midfield is skillful, and can be dynamic and dangerous," Rustad offered.
"Canada struggled to break through [in the recent friendly vs. England] and was gifted two goals on two big mistakes that are unlikely to happen again. This isn't news to anyone, but Canada must find a way to score consistently against teams like Great Britain if it wants to be seen as gold medal contenders."